Antoninus Pius, Titus Aurelius Fulvius Boionus Antoninus

, was born at Lanuvium in Italy (of parents originally of Nismes) in the eighty-sixth year of the Christian era. He was first made proconsul of Asia, then governor of Italy, and consul in the year 120, and displayed the same virtues in these employments as he did afterwards on the imperial throne: he was mild, prudent, moderate, and just. In the year 138 he succeeded the emperor Adrian, who had adopted him, and the first step of his government was to release a number of persons whom his predecessor had condemned to die. The senate, charmed with such a commencement of authority, decreed him the title of Pius, and ordered that statues should be erected to his honour. These he appears to have amply merited. He set about diminishing the taxes, and preventing the litigious and oppressive exaction of them; and bestowed much of his private fortune in charity. Such conduct made his name as much respected abroad as at home. Several nations sent embassies to him, and others besought his counsel in the appointment of their sovereigns: even kings came to pay homage to his exalted virtues. This must have been highly gratifying to him, as his object was to render his name respected by cultivating the gentler arts of peace, rather than by extending his dominions by war. Rome, accordingly, and her provinces, never enjoyed such days of honour and tranquillity as under his reign. Besides redressing the wrongs, and alleviating the calamities which happened to fall upon any part of his dominions, he displayed his taste by the erection of several noble and useful public edifices. In short, in every respect of public or private character, he is celebrated as one of the greatest and best characters in ancient times. Whatever is amiable, generous, and magnanimous, has been ascribed to him; but | what ought to endear his memory even to the present day, was his conduct towards the Christians.

In his days the enemies of the Christians had no pretensions to support persecution but the grossest misrepresentations. These were probably offered to Antoninus as they had been to other sovereigns. To repel them Justin Martyr presented his “Apology” to Antoninus about the third year of his reign, in 140, and not in vain. Antoninus was a man of sense and humanity, and open to conviction. Asia Proper was still the scene of Christianity and of persecution, and thence the application was made to Antoninus, and earthquakes had then happened, with which the Pagans were much terrified, and ascribed them to the vengeance of heaven against the Christians. This will explain some circumstances in the edict sent by our emperor to the council of Asia, which is one of the most remarkable productions of pagan wisdom, and evinces an uncommon spirit of liberality. No apology, we trust, can be requisite for its insertion in this place.

The Emperor to the Council of Asia. I am quite of opinion, that the Gods will take care to discover such persons. For it much more concerns them to punish those who refuse to worship them than you, if they be able. But you harass and vex the Christians, and accuse them of atheism and other crimes, which you can by no means prove. To them it appears advantageous to die for their religion, and they gain their point, while they throw away their lives, rather than comply with your injunctions. As to the earthquakes, which have happened in past times, or lately, is it not proper to remind you of your own despondency, when they happen; and to desire you to compare your spirit with theirs, and observe how serenely they confide in God? In such seasons you seem to be ignorant of the gods, and to neglect their worship; you live in the practical ignorance of the supreme God himself, and you harass and persecute to death those who do worship him. Concerning these same men some others of the provincial governors wrote to our divine father Adrian, to whom he returned answer, ‘That they should not be molested, unless they appeared to attempt something against the Roman government.’ Many also have signified to me concerning these men, to whom I have returned an answer agreeable to the maxims of my father. But if any person will still persist in accusing the Christians merely as such| let the accused be acquitted, though he appear to be a Christian; and let the accuser be punished.

Eusebius informs us, that this was no empty edict, but was really put in execution. Nor did Antoninus content himself with one edict. He wrote to the same purpose to the Larisseans, the Thessalonians, the Athenians, and all the Greeks. It may be therefore concluded that the Christians enjoyed complete toleration during his reign, which lasted twenty-three years. He died March 7, 161, aged seventy-three. His death was a public calamity, and his memory was honoured by every testimony of public gratitude. For a century afterwards, all the Roman emperors assumed the name of Antoninus, from its popularity. Many curious particulars of his private and public life may be seen in the authors referred to in the note. 1


Gen. Dict.—Universal Hist.—Eusebius’s Hist. Eccl. lib. IV. cap. 13.—Mosheim.—Milner’s Church History, vol. I. p. 206.—Lardner’s Works, vol. VII. where there is an excellent defence of the authenticity of the above edict.